Understanding User Needs

This is a very spontaneous blog post! I know I haven’t written much lately, so I will pop an explanation at the end. But before we get to that…

My partner and I have a tendency to watch fluffy shows while we eat dinner. We love international food shows, trashy dating shows, and firm favourite staples like Queer Eye and Drag Race. Last night we decided to try a new Netflix offering: Get Organized with The Home Edit.

I’d heard of this show from my friend, Bec, who was flabbergasted by some of the aspects of the show, and I couldn’t help but agree.

A shocking realisation

The first episode I was completely taken aback by a particular exchange. The 2 women who make up the Home Edit were discussing their plans to makeover the closet of a busy doctor working in a hospital. They were discussing all of these aesthetic choices they were going to make… adding a vanity, organising clothes by colour, etc. The doctor’s colleague (also a doctor) mentioned having an area where hospital gear (scrubs and stethoscopes) could be stored.

The two hosts were shocked.

They literally said “we never would have thought of this!”

I was equally shocked… about the fact that these hosts, who are apparently organisational experts, hadn’t thought of something as simple as you should store the important items that the user needs daily in an easily accessible place.

Form over function

This is a classic example of designers who “design” based on aesthetics rather than the needs of their user, and the perfect introduction to thinking about what the users of your website need.

Do your users need pretty colours and fonts? Probably not. Do they need good user experience? Absolutely.

When users come to your website, they are there to accomplish a task, and your job is to make that task as easy to complete as possible. These are the things you should be thinking about before you add flourishes and personal touches.

As mentioned earlier, the Home Edit’s favourite method of organising is doing so by colour. Look, I get it: a rainbow bookshelf looks pretty cool. But is it practical when you need to find a particular book? For some people, yes. There are people who are incredibly visual. But the average person isn’t going to remember the spine colour of every book they own.

The Home Edit take this one step further, and even organise the kitchen this way. Good luck remembering what colour brand of beans you bought this week. Did you pick up Heinz, Tesco’s own brand, or Asda Smartprice?

What do your users need?

With my own website, I went back and forth on whether or not to include pricing on the Work with Me page. This is a hotly debated topic in many service-based industries and, for a long time, I resisted putting any mention of pricing on the page.

Some recommend not displaying prices as it can prevent certain potential clients from approaching you due to budget, rather than suitability. Some say it gives your competition an easy way to undercut your prices.

I used to worry about these things, but then I started to think more about what my user wants and needs from me. And I knew from my own experience that one of the most important things to me when making a purchase is (duh) the price. So I added a ballpark price range to give my potential customers a better idea of the investment they’d be making when we worked together.

Before you start designing based on what you want, try making a list of what your users need.

Another little update

I know the posts around here have been a bit lacking as of late. I have quite a lot going on at the moment. I started a new full-time role about a month ago, and I’m moving to a new flat next week. I’m really looking forward to moving as I will finally have my own office space. I’m hoping that this will motivate myself to work more on this blog!

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Starting a Redbubble Shop

You might have noticed that when I relaunched my website I quietly launched my new Redbubble shop. I’ve wanted to create physical products for a while but, let’s be real, I am only one person. One person who already juggles a full-time job alongside this blog, design work, and the rest of my life. But it is a big dream of mine. So I’m starting a Redbubble shop!

I looked into various drop shipping options – where product manufacturing is outsourced and then shipped directly to your buyer. But there was still quite a lot of admin involved – I still would have had to set up a shop website, I still would have had to deal directly with customers if things went wrong, and I still wouldn’t have 100% control over the product. For me, when I finally get the chance to embark on a project like this, I want to do it right. I want to have my own processes and packaging and a bigger piece of the pie. So starting a “proper” shop isn’t feasible for me, at the moment.

But I love drawing and being creative. I love stickers and stationery. And, most of all, I love the thrill of physically holding something I’ve created. It’s not something that happens often when you’re primarily a web designer!

Enter Redbubble.

What is Redbubble?

Redbubble is very similar to the dropshipping services that I mentioned above, except they aren’t white labelled. People go to Redbubble specifically to find printed items, usually from independent creators and often of the fan art genre. Many of my laptop stickers are from Redbubble. I was able to search for things that I liked, find a cute design, and then a small percentage of the sale goes to the creator.

Starting a Redbubble shop is easy

You just sign up and start uploading artwork. You can then decide if you want to allow your design to be sold on all of the products that Redbubble offer, or just on specific ones.

Custom stickers by Pretty Content: Be Kind to Your Mind sticker and small Fill Your Heart with Flowers sticker.

How much money do Redbubble artists make?

I’m sure this varies greatly. By default, most products are set up so that the artist takes around a 20% cut of the sale. I’m sure more popular artists with larger audiences are able to bump this up quite a bit.

For me, I’ve only been on the platform briefly, and have had 6 items purchased (admittedly, all from people I know!) since starting a Redbubble shop. So my grand total of earnings is £8.91 thus far. Redbubble only transfer your earnings to you when you hit £20/$20, so I’m still a bit off seeing any actual money!

For me, though, this isn’t really meant to be a money-earning venture. I enjoy doodling on my iPad Pro. It’s something I do for fun, to unwind, and mostly just to share on Instagram. But I figured, if I am drawing these things anyway, why not take a minute to pop them up on Redbubble.

Then if someone comes across my work and likes it, I might make a few pennies. If not, no harm done!

Designing stickers for Redbubble

Since starting a Redbubble shop, I’ve mostly stuck to stickers (with a couple of t-shirts which were a custom request from a friend!). This is mostly down to the fact that I used Redbubble to initially find stickers for my own laptop, then decided to make a few custom ones for myself.

Using Redbubble’s design guidelines, I simply create a canvas in Procreate at the recommended size for a product, then I doodle as I normally would. The image is quite large, which means it can then be used for my usual Instagram posts. I do take a bit of extra care to ensure that everything is coloured in solidly and that there are no spare pixels outside of the shape that I want for the sticker.

Small Pretty Content custom logo sticker
Small Pretty Content pink floral sticker

By default, the stickers also have a thick white border around them, so I try to make sure my design will still look nice when that is present. You can also only offer transparent sticker options, though.

You can even make sticker packs! To do this, you need to place smaller graphics into one sticker-sized canvas, making sure to leave enough space for the white borders. If they don’t touch, the cutting machine will cut each illustration individually, creating multiple stickers rather than one large one!

It can take a bit of practice. I created a small custom sticker pack to fill some gaps on my laptop and two of the stickers were still attached. Nothing some scissors couldn’t fix, but perhaps not the best customer experience if you’re selling them publicly!

My Redbubble shop plans

While I want to keep my Redbubble experience casual, I also want to use it as an opportunity to learn a bit more about physical product creation. For me, I don’t just want to make something and slap it on every product available. I want to put thought into how my artwork will be best displayed on a product. This is why I’ve mostly stuck to stickers at the moment – I think the shapes and colours of the drawings lend themselves well to stickers. The next logical step may be creating prints of these pieces.

But I also want to work from the other end of the process. I’m interested in looking through Redbubble’s product catalogue and seeing if any of the items available inspire a design. For example, I really want to try designing notebook covers that aren’t just one of my illustrations printed on the front, but rather a notebook that I’ve put time and thought into creating.

Then, one day, who knows – maybe I will have enough experience and passion to try setting up a “proper” shop and taking control of everything myself. For now, I’m happy to just create and see a few pennies trickle in!

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Creating a Colour Palette

I recently had a DM from Kirsty Leanne about creating colour palettes. This is something I do quite often with my visual identity work, so I thought I’d run through a few different tips and resources for DIYing your own colour palette!

Colour theory

Of course, there are infinite colours in the world which can seem incredibly daunting! There’s also a science behind choosing colours that work well together and complement each other.

It’s worth just reading up a little bit on colour theory. I like this article about basic colour theory because it talks about how different colours appear in context rather than just showing you a colour wheel and telling you to go for it.

In addition to finding colours that complement each other, you also want to think about tone (warm, neutral, and cool), and meaning (for example, red can be associated with power and danger in the western world, while in China it is the colour of prosperity).

Infinite colours

A good rule of thumb is to not use too many colours in one design. Typically I choose between 2 and 4, depending on the project.

Remember: choosing the colours doesn’t mean you’re restricted to just the particular shade of the colour. For example, my brand palette contains a mustard yellow, but I often use it at a lower opacity so it becomes a lighter shade, but still works within my branding.

Colour palette websites

If you’re not super confident in your ability to choose a palette, you’re in luck because there are quite a few people out there who have already done the work for you!

One of my favourite sites for pre-made colour palettes is Design Seeds. This site is all about colour. You can filter palettes by certain collections, such as by season. Personally, when I use a site like this I usually at least know which base colour I want to use, so I tend to browse by colour.

From there, you will be shown loads of existing palettes, accompanied by an image that contains those colours. It’s a really quick and easy way to see if a certain palette matches the vibe that you’re going for.

Colour palette generators

If you’re a bit more advanced at colour selection, you can play with one of the many colour palette generators online. Personally, my favourite is Coolors. You can hit the spacebar to cycle through different colour options. When you find a hue you like, lock it, then continue flipping through colours until you find a combination that you love!

They also have a function where you can select a colour palette from a photo, which is something I will talk a little bit more about next:

Using a mood board

Personally, the most common way that I choose a colour palette is by using my mood board. When I start a new project, I usually work with my client to create an inspiration board on Pinterest. My client pins images that they like and dislike so I can get an idea of their own visual preferences. Then, I take this preference, along with the research I’ve done about their brand, and create a moodboard.

This might use images from the Pinterest board and/or additional images that I find through other sources.

Once my mood board is put together, I will usually select colours from the mood board itself, then tweak them to work with the project.

It’s not quite as simple as just using the eyedropper to choose colours, but it can provide a good base for the general hue and tone, and then I can adjust accordingly!

And those are my top tips for selecting a colour palette! Let me know if this was helpful, and which method is your favourite!

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Switching from Adobe Illustrator to Affinity Designer

I’ve been using Adobe for design work for as long as I can remember. When I first started creating websites, Photoshop was the industry standard. Looking back, it’s really hard to see why. I pay monthly for Photoshop and Lightroom currently, but they’re definitely photo editing programs (and that’s what I use them for), not fit for designing a website. I decided to look for an alternative, and I found Affinity Designer.

Adobe isn’t cheap

When I got a new laptop earlier this year, I was 99% sure that a fresh subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud was a no-brainer. Then, I saw the price. £50 per month! Even subtracting the £10 I pay for the Adobe photo bundle, it was a bit steep, especially in the unpredictable times of Covid-19.

I tried to justify the expense by 1) thinking of all the different software that comes with Creative Cloud, and 2) deciding I would switch to Adobe XD for my web design software, rather than paying for Sketch

Still, the math didn’t add up. I didn’t need all the software Adobe has to offer. I really only needed Illustrator for vector work and XD for web. And I didn’t want XD. I wanted Sketch, which costs a very reasonable £100ish for the first year, and £80ish for renewals (or you can keep the version you have, without updates, forever. Fair enough!).

I went looking for a cheaper solution and, luckily, I found it. Affinity Designer is a piece of software that’s (almost) on par with Illustrator. It also has a very reasonable price tag. Usually, it costs £50, but they’ve had quite a long-running (probably Covid-19 inspired) 50% off promo running, which means I got the whole thing for a one-off cost of £24. Bargain!

Making the transition from Adobe Illustrator to Affinity Designer

I’ve used Affinity Designer for a couple of projects now and have found the transition to be quite simple. Most of the tools work the same, and the few quirks were easy enough to iron out, especially with the help of the Affinity forum.

The only place if falls short is its lack of live trace functionality. In Adobe, this is a game changer. It allows you to take a raster image and convert it to a vector. Affinity have had many requests from their users to add this feature over the years, however at this time they say they only intend to add it if the functionality meets their high standards… and it doesn’t yet. 

All is not lost, however. There are third-party programs that offer this functionality. So does Inkscape, although I think it’s overkill to set it up just for this one thing. I ended up downloading Image Vectorizer from the App Store and so far so good. It’s had some issues vectorizing light colours, but if I provide a black and white image it does a great job. Then, I simply add the colours in Affinity Designer.

Affinity for everything 

The Affinity suite also includes two more Adobe alternatives: Affinity Photo and Affinity Publisher. These are meant to replace Photoshop and InDesign, respectively. 

One aspect of the Adobe programs that I really enjoy is the ability to sync my Lightroom files between my laptop and my mobile devices, and, for me, that’s a good enough reason to stick to Adobe on this one. But I have also purchased Affinity Publisher, as InDesign is a program I use sparingly but appreciate having around. Although they don’t have the functionality for interactive forms which is disappointing!

Two of the Affinity apps are also available for iPad, although you do need to buy them separately from the desktop software. You can get Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer for iPad right now, while Affinity Publisher for iPad is due to be released this year. This is speedier than Adobe who have Photoshop on iPad and have announced that Illustrator is coming “soon.” That said, Adobe has quite a few products, many of which are more mobile-specific. 

Team Adobe or team Affinity?

It’s safe to say I’m converted! I got to keep my beloved Sketch for web projects, and I got a good piece of software that gets the job done, for a decent price that most people can afford.

I think it also proves that skills are transferrable and the software is less important than people think! So if you’re a beginner in the design space and want to experiment without breaking the bank, I don’t think learning Affinity Designer will hinder you at all if you one day end up using the Adobe ecosystem. 

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Agility vs. The Big Reveal

I wanted to write a pretty casual post about my working style because it’s been bouncing around my head a lot the last couple of weeks!

First, let me set the scene…

If you’ve been a creative on Instagram or Pinterest, there are a million and one posts on how to boost productivity and make the most of your time, and I’ve probably tried them all.

In fact, I started this week dead set on trying the method of blocking out certain days for certain related tasks. I thought I’d have a day of admin, a day of blog post writing, a day of design work. But, you know, Thursday is my shopping day, and oh, I need to sort out a new bank account, and actually I want to start this new project right away. The next thing I knew, my plan was completely out the window.

And it was only 12:04pm on Monday.

The big reveal

Not to make it all about Instagram and Pinterest, but these two platforms have definitely changed the way independent designers work. It’s brought processes to the forefront and made everyone want to look their shiniest. A lot of this seems to revolve around some sort of big reveal of finalised concepts to their client.

I used to do this, both in my agency work and freelance projects. I’d work for ages on something, then do a big reveal when I figured it was “finished.” Of course, in an ideal world, your client will proclaim “it’s perfect!” and swoon into a graceful arc on their chaise longue, singing your praises and sobbing about how they ever did anything without you. It’s the dream, and I’m not saying it never happens, but I’ve learned to prefer when it doesn’t.

I think if you have a real, honest and open relationship with your client, they are going to be more likely to provide feedback. They should want to ask questions and provide input if it’s a project that they’re passionate about. And you should want to receive that feedback if you’re passionate about your work.

If you’re presenting something that you think is finished I think a few things can happen:

  • You’re already attached to the work, and you might be closed off to feedback.
  • Your client may not feel like they can provide feedback as it’s presented as finished.
  • You increase the chances of completely missing the mark and needing to redo a lot of work. Spending hours getting the curves of a logo just right only for the client to not vibe with the concept isn’t productive!

Agile collaboration

In product and software development, we often follow a methodology known as Agile. I’ve worked in quite a few places that have used some form of Agile development or another. A lot of companies pick and choose the aspects of the method that they prefer, which I think is great. The general values of Agile software development are:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

For me, when I am working as the sole designer on a freelance project, these values become very important. Unlike in agency life, I don’t have a team around me to bounce concepts off of or get feedback from. This is something I’ve learned that I value deeply, so when I find myself in these “solo” situations, the solution is clear: my client becomes a member of my team.

So, when I’ve spent a few hours working on initial concepts, I send them a casual screenshot as things start to take place so I can receive immediate feedback. This allows me to make rapid iterations and make sure that the work aligns with the client’s vision throughout the process.

If I have a question for my client, I don’t wait to save them up for one big email, but I fling off a note as it pops into my head, the way I might message a colleague on Slack.

For me, it’s about being open, honest and collaborative so my client can say “I really hate this colour you’ve chosen” and I can say “oh god, you’re right” and we both have equal ownership of the vision we are bringing to life.

So… How do you schedule anything?

Taking this kind of approach can make it harder to stick to a schedule. Just because I have the time to send off questions and concepts to my client doesn’t mean that they will have the time to respond right away, so my daily schedule also needs to be flexible. This means that my previously mentioned attempt at blocking out specific days for specific tasks never would have worked.

I will write a more in-depth post about how I plan soon, but I think the general idea is this:

  1. Figure out the tasks you need to get done for the week, the ones you’d like to get done for the week, and a few extras to fill the gaps.
  2. Map out your ideal week and where those tasks fit in, knowing that you might be ticking off Thursday’s main task on Tuesday.
  3. Each morning, re-evaluate what you have on for the day and modify your task list.
  4. Have the few extra tasks mentioned above readily available for if you find yourself with a bit of time to fill while you wait on feedback from your client.

Hopefully you’ve found this post useful and have started thinking of new ways to open up your processes, be more agile and adaptive, and force your clients to become your new colleagues. Just don’t bitch about your client to your client like you would with your regular colleagues!

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How I Became a Designer

I’ve been a professional designer for about a decade, and people often ask me how I got into it. The short story is: by accident! Kind of.

I Was a Teen Girl with a Blog

In the year 2000ish we got our first family computer – a clunky Windows machine in that weird cream colour they used to do. As quite a nerdy 12-year-old, I quickly started making little webpages using the build-in Notepad text editor. I always loved writing so these webpages tended to be blogs, which I would write in for a few days, upload to something like Angelfire or Geocities, then delete a few days later when I decided to “rebrand.”

This continued for quite a few years. In school I always jumped at the opportunity to take a “web design” class, which I usually ended up teaching as I had already racked up quite a few hours of independent study.

I joined blogging forums where we put our hearts and souls into creating pretty layouts (mostly using stolen images of celebrities). When I was 19, I joined a forum filled with ambitious young women who wanted to learn how to build websites properly. Here, I was introduced to concepts like accessibility, proper code, and not stealing imagery that didn’t belong to me.

Look, Mom, I Made It!

In October 2018, I relaunched my blog as Dreamling, and I really went above and beyond to make a layout that I loved. Someone else must have liked it too because it actually got featured on a major web design blog. From there, other blogs picked it up, and my subsequent designs for the same site. I was kind of sort of slightly famous. At least in my immediate design community.

It was following this that I thought maybe I could be a designer, and that it might be something I’d like to study.

New Media Production & Design

I decided I wanted to study in a program that only accepted under 100 students per year– New Media Production & Design at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in my home city of Calgary. It felt intense at the time, as I had to create a portfolio and attend an in-person essay writing activity. But soon enough I was accepted and began my 2-year journey soaking up everything about New Media I could.

The program wasn’t strictly design-focused, it was made up of a variety of disciplines from print and web design, to video and audio production. I even took classes in 3D modelling which I was tragically awful at. I do not understand the concept of physical objects. I have no idea what a screwdriver looks like (yes, that was a task for one of my tests).

Part of the program was mandated practicum hours. I managed to scoop up a four month internship at a local web agency over the summer, and I became the webmaster of the campus student newspaper’s website. This gave me a pretty good practical foundation, which lead to getting a job in a marketing agency fresh out of graduation.

The Rest is History!

Since then I’ve left Calgary, moved abroad, and worked a variety of different types of design jobs. My first job in the UK was as a front-end web developer and designer for an agency that specialised in e-commerce websites. I followed this up with a brief contract at a corporate insurance startup doing UX and UI work. Then I spent a few years working in-house for a Shopify plugin product. Most recently I moved back to agency life, working on a variety of web and mobile apps!

I love the versatility, and I love that I’ve been able to work in companies that allow me to use many of my diverse skills!

How Can You Become a Designer?

I can go into more detail about what benefited me and what I could have done without in my career growth in a later post, but my key advice if you want to become a designer is: start now.

I recommend playing around in a low-key, low-risk environment before you decide to invest in tools in education. You don’t need fancy software or a degree to sit down, read about design fundamentals, know your CRAP, and play around with some concepts. But you do need to make sure that you have the passion, drive and talent to enter an industry which can be competitive and hard work. It’s much more than colouring in some pretty pictures!

Let me know if you have any questions about how I got into design or how you can get into design! I’d love to have a chat!

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MacBook Air 2020 Review

There are people much more qualified than me to write this kind of review, and many of them already have, so this might be a bit of a strange post. But I decided to write a review of my new 2020 MacBook Air, specifically for people like me: designers who just need a good machine that will fit in with their workflow.

From Then to Now

My previous laptop was the mid-2013 MacBook Air, which I purchased in early 2014. It still had the big silver bezels and the squishier keyboard, and it served me very well once my 2009 MacBook Pro had bitten the dust.

I’ve also used the more recent MacBook Pro, circa 2017 or 2018, as my main machine for work. This one had the reduced bezels, now black for more of a seamless feel, and a keyboard that is, quite frankly, painful to use. It has almost none of the “squishiness” and was akin to slamming your fingertips directly into the table for 8 hours every day.

The new 2020 MacBook Air is a bit like these 2 machines had a baby: we have the unobtrusive black bezel and a keyboard that’s a bit more of a throwback, with more travel (although not exactly the same).

This time, I went for the higher spec’d version of the 2020 MacBook Air, with a Dual Core i5 processor and 512GB of storage.

Is the 2020 MacBook Air Good Enough for a Designer?

When I was deciding which machine to go for, I popped the above into Google to see what others were saying. While it was, and is, still a fairly new release, I felt pretty confident that it would work for my needs, and so far it has!

As a designer, I often flip between tasks quickly and have quite a few programs running at once. Chrome (a notorious memory hog) is almost always open, as is my instant messenger app, Photoshop and Lightroom, and Sketch. When I’m coding, I add my code editor (Brackets, by Adobe), an FTP client, and an image optimiser to the mix.

So far, so good. While the fan can definitely kick in when I get really busy, the only time I’ve really noticed it was during set up – when I was syncing 2 large Google Drives.

2019 iPad Pro vs. 2020 MacBook Air

When I got my iPad Pro in the summer of 2019, I hoped that it would replace my need for a proper laptop. Sadly, this wasn’t the case, but the story does have a happy ending.

While I love my iPad Pro for drawing on Procreate, casual browsing, and bashing out the occasional blog post, I don’t find the keyboard to be comfy enough for a solid round of coding.

I also love using Sketch as my main web design tool, and it is only available on MacOS. I dedicated a lot of time to trying to find an iPad program that would at least allow me to design websites, but didn’t have much luck.

What has pleasantly surprised me is how seamless the Apple ecosystem is. It’s so easy to doodle a design element in Procreate and fling it to my MacBook. I’ve been an Android phone user since 2016, but when it’s time for an upgrade I will definitely be looking at an iPhone to maximise productivity.

I also really enjoy having both devices from a personal time management perspective. Having both means that I can keep my laptop more or less dedicated to tasks that I need to focus on while using my iPad more for causal browsing and consuming media and content. It helps create a clearer divide between work and play for me. I almost think of my MacBook as my portable office, while my iPad is a bit more of an entertainment system.

Using the iPad Pro as an External Monitor

Using Sidecar to convert my iPad Pro into a second monitor has been a real game changer. It’s easy: I just attach my iPad Pro to my MacBook Air (this can be done wirelessly too, but I like using the cable to keep my iPad charged), and it works the same as any other external monitor.

This is especially fantastic for me as I really love the size of the 13-inch 2020 MacBook Air for portability, but I do occasionally need extra space. When I am coding, it’s nice to have the design on one screen and the code on the other. When I am doing more casual tasks, it’s nice to have something playing on the iPad screen, or having my instant messenger app open so I can follow along with my many group chats. The way Apple products work together is seriously impressive!

Can We Talk About This Weird Colour, Though?

The 2020 MacBook Air comes in three colours: silver, space grey and gold. Before this, I’ve personally owned silver MacBooks, and my last work one was space grey. So, this time, I had to go for gold.

This “gold” is such a weird colour though! It’s not a more traditional yellow-ish gold. It’s definitely closer to a rose gold. Depending on my environment, it can look rose gold, bronze or even a bit more on the pink side! As a pink loving woman, I am obsessed. But it’s definitely something to keep in mind if pink isn’t your thing.

I also tend to lean toward a more vintage aesthetic, and the gold really lends itself to that.

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